ICE Reverses International Student Policy for Upcoming School Year After Backlash

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By Jessica Fetrow

The United States’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has rescinded its decision to bar international students from entering the country if all of their courses are online-only for the fall 2020 semester. The initial decision to prohibit foreign students from residing in the country was met with significant backlash from universities, states, and lawmakers. 

The Department of Homeland Security announced on July 6 that it was prohibiting students from residing in the country on F-1 or M-1 visas if their classes were all held online. Under the proposed restrictions, the department would not issue any more of those visas and individuals residing in the country under those visas would be asked to leave or face removal proceedings. While the U.S. Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) does not typically allow international students to reside in the country under F-1 or M-1 visas if their coursework is strictly online, ICE issued an exception to this standard in March in light of the rapidly-evolving coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. had announced that this policy would not apply for the fall 2020 semester.

On hybrid curriculums, the temporary ruling stated that “Nonimmigrant F-1 students attending schools adopting a hybrid model—that is, a mixture of online and in person classes—will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online. These schools must certify to SEVP, through the Form I-20, ‘Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status,’ certifying that the program is not entirely online, that the student is not taking an entirely online course load this semester, and that the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program.”

Judge Allison Dale Burroughs of the U.S. District Court in Boston said that ICE had agreed to rescind its decision on July 14 after she was expected to decide whether to block the new policy on student visas. The rapid reversal is unusual for the Trump administration, typically known for its tendency to stick to its often controversial rulings and decisions. 

The reversal came after severe backlash from several universities across the country, in particular Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who jointly filed a lawsuit against ICE and the Department of Homeland Security on July 8. 

“The announcement disrupts our international students’ lives and jeopardizes their academic and research pursuits. ICE is unable to offer the most basic answers about how its policy will be interpreted or implemented,” said MIT President L. Rafael Reif in an email to its students. “And the guidance comes after many U.S. colleges and universities either released or are readying their final decisions for the fall – decisions designed to advance their educational mission and protect the health and safety of their communities.”

In a letter sent to the Catholic University of America community shortly after the initial decision from ICE, university President John Garvey and Provost Aaron Dominguez issued a statement in support of international students. 

“Every year Catholic University is home to hundreds of international students from all over the world. They are here to learn, to conduct research and to contribute to our global community,” said Garvey and Dominguez in the letter. “We embrace their cultural diversity, and we welcome the unique gifts and perspectives they bring to the academic enterprise. We support policies that welcome international students to our country, and incorporate them into our community. We stand in solidarity with the international students at Catholic University, and across the nation.”  

The university later stated that it was “relieved” to hear of the reversal and the Office of International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) is continuing to communicate with and update its international students “as further DHS guidance is available pertaining to the fall 2020 semester and course registration.”

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